It worsened with the view of Tagovailoa’s tormented face as he rode the injury cart, a face hard to behold with all its pain and fear as a trainer’s arms draped over his shoulders from behind. And it worsened still more with the sideline report from ESPN’s Molly McGrath, who told that as trainers lifted Tagovailoa off that cart, the pain tore through his well-established toughness to wreak screaming.
The appearance of the terrible verb “airlifted,” as Tagovailoa was from Starkville, Miss., to Birmingham, Ala., threw on more worry.
It all exceeded the proper feeling about a player’s season curtailed by such phrases as “dislocated right hip” and “posterior wall fracture.” It barged right into thoughts about what injured hips can mean. At least temporarily, you might fret in a way purely human — over a likable man and a dazzling future suddenly taking on scary uncertainty. The phrase “expected to make a full recovery,” in the statement from Alabama orthopedic surgeon Lyle Cain, certainly seemed welcome after a feeling that dwarfed all the other subjects that also just went unsettled.
There’s the rest of Alabama’s season, which just grew murkier even at 9-1. As CBS analyst Gary Danielson recently described, Alabama built this particular team around Tagovailoa and his rare skills at sports’ hardest position. It can win often with its accustomed collection of multi-star talent — and with Mac Jones at quarterback — but how might it weather that Iron Bowl coming up Nov. 30 at Auburn?
There’s the four-team College Football Playoff, a concept in its sixth season that has never occurred without Alabama, almost as if Alabama’s omission would constitute some sort of breach of protocol. Now that playoff will lack Tagovailoa, one of its most enticing actors. Now the 13-member selection committee, as it meets weekly toward naming its closing four teams Dec. 8, will assess No. 5 Alabama’s caliber vs. other playoff hopefuls as a team without Tagovailoa, without the potential reflected in his 85 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions across his three college seasons. It will weigh into whatever mix is coming that any team shorn of the nation’s second-rated passer would wind up diminished.
There’s the manufactured crisis about whether Alabama Coach Nick Saban erred in continuing to play Tagovailoa with a 35-7 lead late in the second quarter so soon after the high ankle sprain that cost Tagovailoa one game in late October. That yakking did seem fast and foolish, given how Tagovailoa threw for 418 yards the previous week against LSU and given how starting quarterbacks always play first halves with their teams even in blowouts, in large part as a valuable method of drilling for the pivotal moments lurking further down the schedule.
Then there’s that eternal American festival, the NFL draft, coming as ever in late April but anticipated hotly for all those months before. The country’s abundant analysts had Tagovailoa pegged somewhere way up in the bright lights of that event. It figured to be a soaring moment in a rare story line for Tagovailoa and his family and his extended family from Ewa Beach, Hawaii (near Honolulu), the kind of people who will welcome a stranger with offers of food and who became an essential component of Saban’s wish of “godspeed” for them.
Of course, everyone who follows football long since knows, from Joe Theismann to Bo Jackson to beyond, how these athletes always dwell one play from something devastating. Most of the great lot of them never get to that play. On Saturday, three minutes to halftime, on third and four, Tagovailoa scrambled over to his left. Fast Mississippians Marquiss Spencer, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound lineman, and Leo Lewis, a 6-2, 245-pound linebacker, gave chase.
They caught up to him as he threw the ball away, and when he went down beneath them, he had a bloody nose and a contorted body agonizing with pain. He couldn’t put pressure on his right leg. All the hard sights and sounds followed, from the face to the airlifting, and while those would be excruciating if it were any player faced with uncertainty about his passion, it felt objectively grim that it had been this marvel of a player and this guy.
It overshadowed even a playoff or a draft.
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